When the chosen Ireland eleven trot down the steps of the most iconic pavilion in cricket tomorrow morning, they will be hoping to go some way to emulating their extraordinary first day at Lords in July 2019.

In sweltering conditions, an historic bowling performance from Tim Murtagh backed up by Mark Adair and Boyd Rankin saw the much-vaunted England side staring at their lunch in disbelief as they faced the prospect of having to bowl immediately after the interval.

While it did not end well for Ireland before lunch on the third day, the tens of thousands of Ireland supporters who gave great encouragement to their team over those two and a half days knew that they had seen something remarkable in the annals of their country’s cricketing history.

However, despite all the fanfare by Cricket Ireland on that match, this time apparently, in the words of Richard Holdsworth, Director of High Performance for some 12 years, “It's not a pinnacle event. And where we have to put our energies and ensure we have the best team on the park is in our pinnacle events.”

"Going to a World Cup Qualifier where only 10 teams [two from the Qualifier] can qualify for that World Cup, that is still the biggest prize in the game as far as we're concerned, and certainly as far as the world game is concerned."

This comment was in the context of Ireland’s leading bowler, Josh Little, being rested for the Test Match. Little, who has yet to make his Test debut, was allowed to miss the three Tests earlier this year because of commitments to his IPL team Gujarat Titans. Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie supported Holdsworth’s view by accepting that Ireland would not be fielding their best team for Lords and that would be best for Little and Ireland as the World Cup qualifiers were more important.

Holdsworth added that,” without any red-ball preparation behind him, Little might struggle to manage the physical demands of Test cricket: "The majority of the cricket he has been playing is T20 and bowling four overs is not good enough to prepare any cricketer to play Test cricket, where they could be bowling 20-plus overs a day and maybe for two innings.
"We didn't feel physically he was actually going to be ready for that having had no preparation for that Test match. His preparation was literally going to be coming out of the IPL and arriving a couple of days before the Test match."

However, there are often contradictions in the positions taken up by Cricket Ireland and this episode has no shortage of them.

Holdsworth told Forbes Magazine in relation to Josh Little “He’s played just two out of 23 days in international cricket for us in the last four months. That’s not sustainable from an investment point of view. We’re paying this guy good money in terms of our structure and he’s come through our system. We’ve developed and invested in him since a young age. Our belief is that it’s (IPL) good for his development and will help Ireland cricket for the long term, but what we’re grappling with is that we need out best team on the park. We can’t go to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (whom Ireland have been playing in a return to the Test format) and expect to win if we don’t have our best team on the park.

Little did not play in either Bangladesh or Sri Lanka as he remained with Gujarat Titans where he is earning some €500,000 for the IPL season. And who can blame him.

Of course, Holdsworth seeming concern for Little’s workload would not appear to extend to other members of the Ireland squad.

On only one previous occasion since the nineteenth century have two players made their Test and First-Class debut in the same match. Ben White and Matthew Humphreys both joined that very short list in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively and prior to their debuts had bowled considerably less overs in the previous months than Little has bowled in the IPL (32) leading into the final. He also bowled 28 overs in the recent ODI series in Chelmsford against Bangladesh. 
Should Tom Mayes be selected for Thursday he will become the third player to make his Test Debut and First-Class debut on the same day. That has not happened in 130 years and never for the same country.

If, as Cricket Ireland have claimed, the priority is the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe next month, and I believe that is the priority, why they did they agree to exchange the ODI’S scheduled for the Sri Lankan tour for two Test matches. Was it because they wanted to make a statement that Ireland are back playing Tests again and deflect criticism for their failure to play in the purest form of the game for four years. The greatest irony is that Ireland is now drawn with Sri Lanka in the same qualifying group in Zimbabwe. How invaluable would it have been to have experienced 50 over cricket against them.

It would appear that Cricket Ireland are actually unsure of what their priorities really are. The recent Test matches have proven that Ireland has some exceptional cricketers across all formats and there is a core of players that augurs well for the future of Ireland cricket.

Apart from the aforementioned Josh Little, there is Harry Tector, now the 7th best ODI batsmen in the world rankings which is Ireland’s highest ever ranking. Lorcan Tucker, Curtis Campher, Mark Adair have developed into players who would not look out of place in higher ranked sides.

There is of course still the senior coterie of players who did their utmost to keep Ireland competitive in the fallow years after the golden generation. Paul Stirling, Andrew Balbirnie, George Dockrell and Andy McBrine have finally got consistent support.

These players have developed, for the most part, without a first-class structure for four years, a virtual abandonment of the Wolves program, inadequate facilities and, by some distance, the poorest international grounds in terms of infrastructure, not only among Test nations but several Associates as well.

Five years ago, I was at the launch of the outdoor practice facilities in Abbottstown when we were also shown the site of Ireland’s new stadium and the grass practice pitches. It has been announced that Ireland expect to have the stadium finally ready for the T20 World Cup finals which Ireland is scheduled to co-host with England and Scotland. Therefore, the pitches would need to be laid and tested by 2026. The practice grass pitches turned into a farce and yet again no one seemed to take responsibility for that despite the cost. Let us hope that the stadium pitches are in better state.

Of course, none of this would be happening without significant amounts of Government money. In the euphoria of attaining Full Member status in 2017, Cricket Ireland appeared to believe that the funding that they would get from the ICC would enable them to develop into an elite cricket nation.

Given that senior executives of Cricket Ireland had been in close association with ICC for many years, did it not occur to them that the largesse that they believed would be theirs might not actually materialise. A study of the history of ICC’s dealings with smaller nations and Associates might have given them a hint that all their grandiose plans may not actually come to fruition.
Cricket Ireland were in financial difficulty prior to Covid and arguably the millions that they got from Government rescued them from a much worse state.

Irish government funding is channelled through Sport Ireland, and it is quite remarkable that given that last year, following a Diversity, Inclusion and Equality Workshop and Survey in Cricket Ireland, it was found that 81% of the staff had no faith or trust in senior management and that 51% have experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace, yet there is NO available evidence of Sport Ireland intervention. As far as I am aware all of the senior management in place at the time of the survey are still in situ.

No one appears to have been held accountable and yet Sport Ireland continues to channel funds to an organisation who has operated like this. Mind you, when the FAI under CEO John Delaney were effectively a rogue organisation, it took investigative journalists and a parliamentary committee to end Delaney’s reign and it was only at that committee that the then Sport Ireland CEO finally conceded that he could not say that he had trust in the FAI.

The only reason that Ireland must make the World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe a priority is that they should have qualified automatically in the top eight of the World Super League.
I predicted, on this site, prior to the first matches in Southampton against England that 100 points out of a maximum of 240 would be sufficient. And it would have been enough. Ireland lost close matches against New Zealand twice, Bangladesh and rain probably cost them the first match against South Africa in Malahide.

In the nine games against England, West Indies (both away) and South Africa Ireland did remarkably well to get 45 points out of 90, almost halfway to the target. The failure to qualify owes much more to the meagre return against the three teams that they should have had the most confidence against. In the nine games against Afghanistan, Netherlands and Zimbabwe a return of just 25 points out of 90, was the difference between a stress-free summer and the tension ridden Qualifiers next month.

It would be a disaster if Ireland fail to qualify for the second successive time. It was bad enough missing out on England in 2019 but to miss out on India would, at best, stall the progress that has been made over the past couple of years.

Continuously losing close games is sometimes a result of poor decision making and other times it is the tension making that a tad bit too much to cope with.

The board of Cricket Ireland had on it, Gary Keegan who is renowned as one of the leading sports psychologists in the world. He, along with coach Billy Walsh transformed Irish Amateur Boxing to the point that the team was coming home from Olympic, World and European games laden down with medals. Then the blazers muscled their way back in and Keegan left while Walsh was offered and accepted the USA head coach role and he has made a roaring success of that.

It is well documented that Keegan is a major, some might say decisive, influence of the extraordinary success of the Ireland rugby team over the past eighteen months. He helped change the mentality from being a good competitive side to one that feared no one and consequently won series in New Zealand, won against South Africa, England and France. The sequence of narrow defeats became wins, many spectacularly decisive.

The question is was this very talented man asked to apply his skills to the Ireland cricket team? If not, why not? If Ireland had won three of those very winnable matches, then they would not have to go to Zimbabwe.

The most recent series against Bangladesh in Chelmsford is representative of what has been the issue that keeps on occurring. Ireland had to win all three ODI’s to qualify and Cricket Ireland decided that moving the games to Chelmsford, a half an hour from the largest Bangladeshi community in England, would be a good plan and as they stated it was much more likely that the weather would be better than in Dublin or Belfast.  

Intriguingly, on the morning of the first ODI Cricinfo carried a preview that did not mention the weather as a factor but stated that it was because pitches could not be prepared back in Ireland to a sufficient standard at this early in the season. There are plenty of examples of international matches being played in May in Ireland, not least Ireland’s first and so far, only home men’s Test match in 2018. That pitch survived well.

The match of course, ended as a no result and Ireland couldn’t qualify. But if those extra 21 deliveries had had been bowled thereby constituting a match Ireland were well behind the rate. Other than a ten ball 15 from Stirling, none of the other batters got past a strike rate of 57. Game management has not always been on point in the Super League. In the third ODI Ireland needed just 51 off 50 balls with 7 wickets in hand yet came up short.

I would need a lot of convincing that this could not be resolved by a top-class sports psychologist. Gary Keegan anyone!

By the way, when Ireland have a poor result the Cricket Ireland media section go to ground. After the infamous result against Namibia in October 2021, which sent Ireland packing from the preliminary round of the T20WC, there was nothing for a full week. After the first match in Chelmsford, which confirmed that Ireland would not qualify automatically there was no report or indeed any mention of the match.  Hopefully there will be no shortage of reports over the next few weeks.

Even with no red ball practice Ireland’s batmen have performed exceptionally well with the bat even in alien conditions. However, the bowling attack is somewhat lightweight especially on Test quality wickets. Sri Lanka only batted once in each of the two Tests in Galle and had a total aggregate of 1,295 runs for the loss of just 9 wickets. A lot of lessons should have and hopefully will have been learned.

A Test at Lords is always something to be treasured and although it might not be a priority for Cricket Ireland’s High-Performance Director, try telling that to the tens of thousands of Irish supporters who will descend on St. John’s Wood over the next week.

See you there.